At last. A book I actually read. Start to finish.
In December, Jack and I decided on the 4 gift rule: something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read. The ‘something to read’ from Jack was Once upon a river. He bought it because he thought I’d enjoy the fantasy premise. What he didn’t realise was I had just finished reading Setterfield’s first book: The Thirteenth Tale. She is a writer as I can only aspire to be. I love the way she captures moments and feelings in her words, and even if it is something unfamiliar to me I find I can put myself in that position.
So I actually started reading this in February, when we went on our Valentines trip to Edinburgh, but didn’t get very far in it due to us being far too busy in that wonderful city. When I came back to it in March I did have to remind myself of what had happened as it is a complex plot with a lot of interconnected characters, but once I started again as we began the lock down, I couldn’t put it down. This was a particular struggle for me as I have a lot of trouble with sleep. That first week I often wasn’t asleep before 4am and was awake again at around 7.30 or 8. I’ve always been a rubbish sleeper. Sunday nights are the worst. This was like almost 2 weeks of Sunday nights. As a child I would read when I couldn’t drift off and often my eyes would tire and I’d be away. This book was not like that. I tried reading it to tire my eyes and instead found myself invigorated by the plot; wide awake and hungry for more mystery. Spoiler alert is now in effect.
The book begins as a strange man collapses through the door of a pub on the banks of a river. He is not alone, but what everyone takes to be a life-size doll at first actually turns out to be a little girl. She is not breathing and the patrons assume her dead. The local nurse Rita is called to tend to the injured man, now identified as photographer Henry Daunt, but as she spends time with the girl’s body all of a sudden she feels a pulse.
2 years prior, a local wealthy couple had their 2 year old daughter snatched from her bed for ransom. Could this be their Amelia returned?
At the same time farmer Robert Armstrong is dealing with the trouble caused by his eldest son, whose gambling and dodgy dealings have lead his estranged wife to poison herself and drown their 4 year old daughter…
In the midst of this, Lily White the local Vicar’s housekeeper becomes obsessed by the girl, who she believes is her sister, and tries her best to keep her dark past at bay.
Connecting all these characters and plot lines is the small girl who came out of the water and came back to life.
Oh, and a lovely pig called Maud who can tell the future.
One of the things I loved most about this book is the skilful way the characters have been woven together and that even the smallest characters are fleshed out, adding an incredible depth to the tale. The driving force behind the plot is twofold: the telling of stories and the river. Much like a river, a story can be the giver of life; for some, the telling of stories is as necessary as drinking to live. The story of the girl comes from the pub where she came back to life and the girl herself came from the river. Both are central to the plot as it twists and turns through mystery after mystery.
As I mentioned, the cast of characters is broad and varied yet interconnected. I love that Setterfield is unafraid to make these links. They could so easily be cliche but she manages to lift the connections above that and instead create a vast web with plausible ties rather than convenient ones. Another thing I loved was that some of the characters are different to those expected in a book set at the turn of the century (which is how it feels though is never set in stone). Robert Armstrong is a black man married to a white woman. Jonathan, the youngest child of the pub landlady, has Downs syndrome. These differences are mentioned early on but so subtly that they didn’t occur to me until much later on. When for instance Jonathan is mentioned as being different from other boys his age, unable to tell stories because he can’t get the words in the right order in his head and having almond shaped eyes, I did not immediately think: he has Downs syndrome. I did not even immediately think: He has some kind of SEN. I thought: here is an interesting and deep character. He comes from a family of sociable story-tellers, but cannot do it himself. He must have some kind of talent he is not aware of yet but will come into play later. And therein I believe lies Setterfield’s mastery. His condition is a part of him and who he is, but Setterfield does not allow that to define him. Similarly, Armstrong’s skin colour is mentioned in such a subtle way that even as he repeatedly explains that Robin, his eldest son, does not look like him, it still did not initially occur to me that Robin was not his biological son, and as such didn’t look like him because he is not mixed race as his younger siblings are. Robin is in fact the result of rape, but Armstrong raises him as his own with no qualms. The character of Robin is also an interesting examination of the nature/nurture debate, as despite his parents’ best efforts to raise him right, he becomes involved with a very seedy set of individuals, headed by his biological father.
From reading Setterfield’s earlier book, The Thirteenth Tale, it is clear she is preoccupied with heritage and inheritance as these feature as themes throughout both books. The concept that a child may inherit more than their looks from their parents, but their identity as well, is interesting, and Setterfield seems to be of the opinion that nature triumphs over nurture more often than not. This could be one of the reasons why she writes so compellingly about the natural world. In this book, the descriptions of the water far outweigh the descriptions of people. Not only are there more but they are more detailed and immersive. Perhaps this is an indication of the power of nature and how it must not be taken for granted or abused by people.
I found it incredibly difficult to put down once the mystery began to unravel. I found myself wanting to figure out who this child was, who she truly belonged to and how she had come back to life.
Ultimately, it is not really about that though; it is more about how she brings those around her to life. Metaphorically speaking.
SERIOUSLY SPOILERS BELOW (not major ones but y’know)
Those at the pub, who deal in storytelling come to life when she is found as each speaker has their own twist on the tale, even Jonathan, who cannot tell stories initially, learns how to by the end. The Vaughns (the wealthy couple) are brought closer together by the little girl; she reinvigorates their relationship by bringing love back to their house, despite them not being sure if she is their missing daughter or not. Lily is given the strength she needed to break away from her past and begin living in the present. Rita, the nurse who did not desire a usual life, finds love and happiness in a family she never knew she wanted. And the Armstrongs? Well they manage to settle their differences and begin again, having found what was once lost.
I loved this book. I can see it becoming one of those I return to in the future. I’m sure I will discover more layers each time I read it too. I just have a feeling, as the book says: something is going to happen.